In AnandTech’s great review of the MacBook One,1 the extensive battery-testing graphs were a bit depressing to me — not because of the MacBook’s results, which were roughly what I expected, but because of the relatively stagnant battery-life range covered by Apple’s laptop line.
As batteries and components advance, device designers are able to spend those advancements increasing battery life at a given size and weight, or they can keep battery life in the same range and just make the batteries (and therefore the devices) smaller and lighter. In recent years, Apple has chosen the latter almost every time.
The relentless expenditure of technical progress on ever-diminishing thinness and lightness gains rather than battery life strongly suggests that Apple considers battery life good enough across its major product lines. The result is a homogeneous battery-life range across the lineup.
But, especially if you’re not interested in the aging MacBook Air line and only consider the Retina models (once you go Retina, you never go back), those battery graphs make it clear that battery life isn’t good enough across the board yet to stop pushing it forward as much as possible — especially if your use is closer to the “Heavy Workload” test, which I’d hardly describe as an unusual or truly heavy computational load (web browsing, downloading a large file, and playing a movie in the background), under which no Apple laptop lasted more than 6 hours and no Retina model exceeded 5.
These only truly offer “all-day battery life” if you do very light work all day, and don’t work the long hours typical of today’s disturbingly ubiquitous workaholism-glorifying culture in tech companies… such as Apple.
Design is about making difficult decisions and trade-offs. Longer battery lives would make some of the products thicker and heavier, and not everyone would accept that trade-off. But today, everyone who wants an Apple product needs to accept the opposite: thinness and lightness that some of us didn’t need, at the expense of battery life that many of us could’ve really used.
And the larger-screened MacBook Pros that do have large batteries also come with much more power-hungry CPUs, negating the battery-life difference. The 15-inch MacBook Pro, with the largest battery and ostensibly Apple’s best laptop, has only mediocre battery life, due in part to its larger screen but more because of its quad-core CPUs and (mostly) dual-GPU configurations.2
Imagine some of the options we could have if Apple made a few outliers for people who really wanted them:
- iPhone Extended: A thicker iPhone with 50–100% more battery life, without the unwieldy footprint of the Plus line, which is prohibitively large for many.
- 13-inch MacBook: The 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, but with a MacBook One or MacBook Air-class CPU. With that battery, it could plausibly offer real-world runtimes of 12–16 hours of light use and 8–10 hours of heavier use without giving up the Retina screen or a full-travel keyboard.
- 15-inch MacBook: Same deal for the 15-inch, which could plausibly offer 12 hours of light use or 8 hours of heavier use with the biggest, nicest screen in the lineup. Unless…
- 17-inch 4K Retina MacBook Pro: Maximum screen space on the go for people who really need it. 4K is an exact “2X” of the 1920-wide display of the old, pre-Retina 17-inch MacBook Pro, and with today’s construction and technology, it could likely be only as heavy as the pre-Retina 15-inch MacBook Pro — just over 5 pounds — while offering battery life comparable to today’s 15-inch line. A low-end configuration with an Air-class CPU and Intel-only GPU could run even longer.
These would be less newsworthy and dramatic than the thin-and-light gains on the other products, but a lot of customers would absolutely love them. The “iPhone Extended” and the “13-inch MacBook” could plausibly become the best-sellers in their respective lineups, and I know a lot of people who would jump at the chance to buy one of those 15- or 17-inch options.
It’s great that Apple pushes thin-and-light boundaries so aggressively on many of their products, but I wish it wouldn’t be the only choice they offer on all of their products.
My temporary pet name of “the new MacBook”, since it famously only has one USB port, until its actual name of “MacBook” generally unambiguously refers to this product line. ↩︎
The base model of the current 15-inch has only the Intel integrated GPU, an option that Apple has made available in some 15-inch generations. I wish my 2012 model had that option. Discrete mobile GPUs run hot and expensively fail often, and the dual-GPU setup in the 15-inch line is often buggy and causes significantly worse battery life when using certain common apps — most notably including Chrome. If I were buying a new 15-inch laptop today, I’d definitely get the Intel-GPU-only base model. ↩︎